Global Global Policy Studies & International Security

Saudi Arabia Gives Women the Wheel: Why Now, and What Now?

Photo: Mattia Panciroli (CC)

On Tuesday, Sept. 26, Saudi Arabia announced via televised royal decree that it will finally allow women to drive, marking a watershed moment in the fight for women’s rights. The verdict gives Saudi Arabian women both the literal and metaphorical wheel: as they are handed the keys, they will reach an unprecedented degree of independence and agency.

Since activist Manal al-Sharif posted a video of herself driving on YouTube in 2011, women’s rights movements in Saudi Arabia have accelerated at a considerable rate. The decision to lift the ban was immediately heralded by the international community, and rightfully so. Beyond the rhetoric of the announcement, it is worth examining the tactical and strategic motives driving the decision and future implications: why now, and what does this mean for the future of women in Saudi Arabia?


The ban on women drivers has been a lighnting-rod for international criticism and tarnished Saudi Arabia’s reputation. Justifications have ranged from claims that driving would damage women’s ovaries to the notion that letting women drive would lead them to promiscuity, resulting in the collapse of the family.

With Sharia law acting as the de facto constitution in Saudi Arabia, rigid rules and patriarchal, antiquated traditions have prevailed. But it is not just the Wahhabi interpretation of Sharia law that is to blame. The wilaya system is a guardianship arrangement in which men have control over their female relatives, requiring women to obtain permission to travel. This system is ingrained in the family structure: male relatives’ dominion over the women in their family result in less publicly-visible restrictions on women’s mobility. The lift on the driving ban allows women to obtain a license without permission from a male relative.

It is this lesser-known restriction that has recently inspired Saudi women to quietly use studying abroad as a highway to freedom and speak out through social media about the injustice of their country’s system.

Luckily, the intensifying objections from within and outside of the country’s borders are causing government leaders to notice and react for two major reasons.

  1. Empowering women is economically advantageous.

King Abdullah, who reigned in Saudi Arabia from 2005 until his death in 2015, incrementally advanced women’s rights. Under his rule, women were appointed to the Shura Council, the highest advisory body in the country, and were also given the right to vote and run in municipal elections.  He oversaw an all-female university, and perhaps most notably, began the King Abdullah Scholarship Program, which gave study abroad grants to both male and female students.

Now, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has expanded on King Abdullah’s progressive views with his “Vision 2030” plan, an ambitious economic and social reform project, which aims to increase women’s participation in the workforce from 22% to 30%.

These initiatives point to a growing realization in the country: educating and empowering the female population drives economic growth. With oil prices dropping around the globe, Saudi Arabia is looking to strengthen international ties and bolster economic activity; both of which are achieved through expanding women’s rights. Pragmatically, by giving women the right to drive, the Saudi government is enabling them to travel to and from work, resulting in a larger workforce and more money injected into the economy.

  1. Lessening the oppression of women is beneficial for the world’s perception of Islam.

Wariness of Islam has spiked in recent years. From the United States’ proposed travel bans on majority-Muslim countries to ISIS-claimed terrorist attacks throughout Western Europe to the increasing Sunni-Shia split in the Middle East, Islam, the world’s second-largest religion, has been a politically charged issue within the international community.

The driving ban has long been blamed on the patriarchal traditions of Sharia law. However, when examining the origins of the faith, it becomes apparent that Islam does not advocate for the oppression of women. In reality, women played a large role in the formation of the faith. Prophet Muhammad’s wives ran businesses, spoke on religious conflicts, and advised Muhammad himself. Read more about this here.

By lifting the driving ban, Saudi Arabia is exhibiting an evolving compassion within the Saudi regime, as well as a willingness to work with the international community. Saudi Arabia will continue to highly revere Sharia law. Giving women the right to drive allows the Saudis to continue this tradition without social media campaigns and movements serving as a speed bump in the government’s quest to be an example for the Arab-Muslim world.


The lift on the ban will take effect in June 2018. Until then, the government will establish new driving schools and licensing agencies, since the segregation of the sexes in Saudi Arabia will require female driving instructors.

The adjustment will be carefully watched by the international community to ensure that the promise continues to move forward. Women (and men) around the world have shown their support on social media with the hashtags #Women2Drive and #SaudiWomenCanDrive.

Most importantly, this announcement gives Crown Prince Salman the opportunity to, for lack of a better term, put his money where his mouth is. Given the Vision 2030 goal of increasing women’s participation in the workforce, this announcement serves as a pilot for Crown Prince Salman’s proposed reforms.  By pushing for speedy and efficient implementation, he will strengthen his country’s standing both at home and abroad.

As the government prepares to give women the final green light, they will also be charged with ensuring that the somewhat capricious and arbitrary legal code will align with the change in policy. The government will then have to consider future implications, ranging from what it will mean to have more women in the workplace, to any effects on the family system, to eventually abolishing the wilaya system in totality. Giving the women the right to drive does not mean they have crossed the finish line, but it is a major step in easing off the brakes.

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